Sky Pointing Curiosity Captures Breathtaking Vista of Mount Sharp and Crater Rim, Climbs Vera Rubin Seeking Hydrated Martian Minerals

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1833, Oct. 2, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Universe Today in a new mission update.

“Curiosity is doing well, over five years into the mission,” Michael Meyer, NASA Lead Scientist, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters told Universe Today in an interview.

“A key finding is the discovery of an extended period of habitability on ancient Mars.”

The car-sized rover soft landed on Mars inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 using the ingenious and never before tried “sky crane” system.

A rare glimpse of Curiosity’s arm and turret mounted skyward pointing drill is illustrated with our lead mosaic from Sol 1833 of the robot’s life on Mars – showing a panoramic view around the alien terrain from her current location in October 2017 while actively at work analyzing soil samples.

“Your mosaic is absolutely gorgeous!’ Jim Green, NASA Director Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., told Universe Today

“We are at such a height on Mt Sharp to see the rim of Gale Crater and the top of the mountain. Truly breathtaking.”

The rover has ascended more than 300 meters in elevation over the past 5 years of exploration and discovery from the crater floor to the mountain ridge. She is driving to the top of Vera Rubin Ridge at this moment and always on the lookout for research worthy targets of opportunity.

Additionally, the Sol 1833 Vera Rubin Ridge mosaic, stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, shows portions of the trek ahead to the priceless scientific bounty of aqueous mineral signatures detected by spectrometers years earlier from orbit by NASA’s fleet of Red Planet orbiters.

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge (aka Hematite Ridge) – it is the first aqueous mineral signature that we have seen from space, a driver for selecting Gale Crater,” NASA HQ Mars Lead Scientist Meyer elaborated.

“And now we have access to it.”

The Sol 1833 photomosaic illustrates Curiosity maneuvering her 7 foot long (2 meter) robotic arm during a period when she was processing and delivering a sample of the “Ogunquit Beach” for drop off to the inlet of the CheMin instrument earlier in October. The “Ogunquit Beach” sample is dune material that was collected at Bagnold Dune II this past spring.

The sample drop is significant because the drill has not been operational for some time.

“Ogunquit Beach” sediment materials were successfully delivered to the CheMin and SAM instruments over the following sols and multiple analyses are in progress.

To date three CheMin integrations of “Ogunquit Beach” have been completed. Each one brings the mineralogy into sharper focus.

Researchers used the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover to gain this detailed view of layers in “Vera Rubin Ridge” from just below the ridge. The scene combines 70 images taken with the Mastcam’s right-eye, telephoto-lens camera, on Aug. 13, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

What’s the status of the rover health at 5 years, the wheels and the drill?

“All the instruments are doing great and the wheels are holding up,” Meyer explained.

“When 3 grousers break, 60% life has been used – this has not happened yet and they are being periodically monitored. The one exception is the drill feed (see detailed update below).”

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now closer than ever to the mineral signatures that were the key reason why Mount Sharp was chosen as the robots landing site years ago by the scientists leading the unprecedented mission.

Along the way from the ‘Bradbury Landing’ zone to Mount Sharp, six wheeled Curiosity has often been climbing. To date she has gained over 313 meters (1027 feet) in elevation – from minus 4490 meters to minus 4177 meters today, Oct. 19, 2017, said Meyer.

The low point was inside Yellowknife Bay at approx. minus 4521 meters.

VRR alone stands about 20 stories tall and gains Curiosity approx. 65 meters (213 feet) of elevation to the top of the ridge. Overall the VRR traverse is estimated by NASA to take drives totaling more than a third of a mile (570 m).

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Vera Rubin Ridge” or VRR is also called “Hematite Ridge.” It’s a narrow and winding ridge located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. It was informally named earlier this year in honor of pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin.

The intrepid robot reached the base of the ridge in early September.

The ridge possesses steep cliffs exposing stratifications of large vertical sedimentary rock layers and fracture filling mineral deposits, including the iron-oxide mineral hematite, with extensive bright veins.

VRR resists erosion better than the less-steep portions of the mountain below and above it, say mission scientists.

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

What’s ahead for Curiosity in the coming weeks and months exploring VRR before moving onward and upwards to higher elevation?

“Over the next several months, Curiosity will explore Vera Rubin Ridge,” Meyer replied.

“This will be a big opportunity to ground-truth orbital observations. Of interest, so far, the hematite of VRR does not look that different from what we have been seeing all along the Murray formation. So, big question is why?”

“The view from VRR also provides better access to what’s ahead in exploring the next aqueous mineral feature – the clay, or phyllosilicates, which can be indicators of specific environments, putting constraints on variables such as pH and temperature,” Meyer explained.

The clay minerals or phyllosilicates form in more neutral water, and are thus extremely scientifically interesting since pH neutral water is more conducive to the origin and evolution of Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.

How far away are the clays ahead and when might Curiosity reach them?

“As the crow flies, the clays are about 0.5 km,” Meyer replied. “However, the actual odometer distance and whether the clays are where we think they are – area vs. a particular location – can add a fair degree of variability.”

The clay rich area is located beyond the ridge.

Over the past few months Curiosity make rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” said Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity is using the science instruments on the mast, deck and robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers. The pair of miniaturized chemistry lab instruments inside the belly – CheMin and SAM – are used to analyze the chemical and elemental composition of pulverized rock and soil gathered by drilling and scooping selected targets during the traverse.

A key instrument is the drill which has not been operational. I asked Meyer for a drill update.

“The drill feed developed problems retracting (two stabilizer prongs on either side of the drill retract, controlling the rate of drill penetration),” Meyer replied.

“Because the root cause has not been found (think FOD) and the concern about the situation getting worse, the drill feed has been retracted and the engineers are working on drilling without the stabilizing prongs.”

“Note, a consequence is that you can still drill and collect sample but a) there is added concern about getting the drill stuck and b) a new method of delivering sample needs to be developed and tested (the drill feed normally needs to be moved to move the sample into the chimera). One option that looks viable is reversing the drill – it does work and they are working on the scripts and how to control sample size.”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rover’s long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

Stay tuned. In part 2 we’ll discuss the key findings from Curiosity’s first 5 years exploring the Red Planet.

As of today, Sol 1850, Oct. 19, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.89 miles (17.53 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 445,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Map shows route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through Sol 1827 of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 27, 2017). Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 10.84 miles (17.45 kilometers). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

See NASA’s Curiosity Rover Simultaneously from Orbit and Red Planet’s Surface Climbing Mount Sharp

NASA’s Curiosity rover as seen simultaneously on Mars surface and from orbit on Sol 1717, June 5, 2017. The robot snapped this self portrait mosaic view while approaching Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater – backdropped by distant crater rim. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images and colorized. Inset shows overhead orbital view of Curiosity (blue feature) amid rocky mountainside terrain taken the same day by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

You can catch a glimpse of what its like to see NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover simultaneously high overhead from orbit and trundling down low across the Red Planet’s rocky surface as she climbs the breathtaking terrain of Mount Sharp – as seen in new images from NASA we have stitched together into a mosaic view showing the perspective views; see above.

Earlier this month on June 5, researchers commanded NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to image the car sized Curiosity rover from Mars orbit using the spacecrafts onboard High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) telescopic camera during Sol 1717 of her Martian expedition – see below.

HiRISE is the most powerful telescope ever sent to Mars.

And as she does nearly every Sol, or Martian day, Curiosity snapped a batch of new images captured from Mars surface using her navigation camera called navcam – likewise on Sol 1717.

Since NASA just released the high resolution MRO images of Curiosity from orbit, we assembled together the navcam camera raw images taken simultaneously on June 5 (Sol 1717), in order to show the actual vista seen by the six wheeled robot from a surface perspective on the same day.

The lead navcam photo mosaic shows a partial rover selfie backdropped by the distant rim of Gale Crater – and was stitched together by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

The feature that appears bright blue at the center of this scene is NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover amid tan rocks and dark sand on Mount Sharp, as viewed by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 5, 2017. The rover is about 10 feet long and not really as blue as it looks here. The image was taken as Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Right now NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is approaching her next science destination named “Vera Rubin Ridge” while climbing up the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, the humongous mountain that dominates the rover’s landing site inside Gale Crater.

“When the MRO image was taken, Curiosity was partway between its investigation of active sand dunes lower on Mount Sharp, and “Vera Rubin Ridge,” a destination uphill where the rover team intends to examine outcrops where hematite has been identified from Mars orbit,” says NASA.

“HiRISE has been imaging Curiosity about every three months, to monitor the surrounding features for changes such as dune migration or erosion.”

The MRO image has been color enhanced and shows Curiosity as a bright blue feature. It is currently traveling on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Curiosity is approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet wide (3.0 meters by 2.8 meters).

“The exaggerated color, showing differences in Mars surface materials, makes Curiosity appear bluer than it really looks. This helps make differences in Mars surface materials apparent, but does not show natural color as seen by the human eye.”

See our mosaic of “Vera Rubin Ridge” and Mount Sharp below.

Curiosity images Vera Rubin Ridge during approach backdropped by Mount Sharp. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1726, June 14, 2017 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Curiosity is making rapid progress towards the hematite-bearing location of Vera Rubin Ridge after conducting in-depth exploration of the Bagnold Dunes earlier this year.

“Vera Rubin Ridge is a high-standing unit that runs parallel to and along the eastern side of the Bagnold Dunes,” says Mark Salvatore, an MSL Participating Scientist and a faculty member at Northern Arizona University, in a new mission update.

“From orbit, Vera Rubin Ridge has been shown to exhibit signatures of hematite, an oxidized iron phase whose presence can help us to better understand the environmental conditions present when this mineral assemblage formed.”

Curiosity will use her cameras and spectrometers to elucidate the origin and nature of Vera Rubin Ridge and potential implications or role in past habitable environments.

“The rover will turn its cameras to Vera Rubin Ridge for another suite of high resolution color images, which will help to characterize any observed layers, fractures, or geologic contacts. These observations will help the science team to determine how Vera Rubin Ridge formed and its relationship to the other geologic units found within Gale Crater.”

To reach Vera Rubin Ridge, Curiosity is driving east-northeast around two small patches of dunes just to the north. She will then turn “southeast and towards the location identified as the safest place for Curiosity to ascend the ridge. Currently, this ridge ascent point is approximately 370 meters away.”

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Lower Mount Sharp was chosen as a destination for the Curiosity mission because the layers of the mountain offer exposures of rocks that record environmental conditions from different times in the early history of the Red Planet. Curiosity has found evidence for ancient wet environments that offered conditions favorable for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life,” says NASA.

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 1733, June 21, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 10.29 miles (16.57 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 420,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 22-24: “SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Curiosity’s Traverse Map Through Sol 1717. This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1717 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (June 05, 2017). The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Opportunity Reaches ‘Perseverance Valley’ Precipice – Ancient Fluid Carved Gully on Mars

Opportunity rover looks south from the top of Perseverance Valley along the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars in this partial self portrait including the rover deck and solar panels. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4736 (20 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.

Opportunity’s unprecedented goal ahead is to go ‘Where No Rover Has Gone Before!’

In a remarkable first time feat and treat for having ‘persevered’ so long on the inhospitably frigid Martian terrain, Opportunity has been tasked by her human handlers to drive down a Martian gully carved billions of years ago – by a fluid that might have been water – and conduct unparalleled scientific exploration, that will also extend into the interior of Endeavour Crater for the first time.

No Mars rover has done that before.

“This will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.

“Opportunity has arrived at the head of Perseverance Valley, a possible water-cut valley here at a low spot along the rim of the 22-km diameter Endeavour impact crater,” says Larry Crumpler, a rover science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

NASA’s unbelievably long lived Martian robot reached a “spillway” at the top of “Perseverance Valley” in May after driving southwards for weeks from the prior science campaign at a crater rim segment called “Cape Tribulation.”

“The next month or so will be an exciting time, for no rover has ever driven down a potential ancient water-cut valley before,” Crumpler gushes.

“Perseverance Valley” is located along the eroded western rim of gigantic Endeavour crater – as illustrated by our exclusive photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Read an Italian language version of this story here by Marco Di Lorenzo.

The mosaics show the “spillway” as the entry point to the ancient valley.

NASA’s Opportunity rover acquired this Martian panoramic view from a promontory that overlooks Perseverance Valley below – scanning from north to south. It is centered on due East and into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor. Rover deck and wheel tracks at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4730 (14 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Investigations in the coming weeks will “endeavor” to determine whether this valley was eroded by water or some other dry process like debris flows,” explains Crumpler.

“It certainly looks like a water cut valley. But looks aren’t good enough. We need additional evidence to test that idea.”

The valley slices downward from the crest line through the rim from west to east at a breathtaking slope of about 15 to 17 degrees – and measures about two football fields in length!

Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter on the Red Planet. Perseverance Valley slices eastwards at approximately the 8 o’clock position of the circular shaped crater. It sits just north of a rim segment called “Cape Byron.”

Why go and explore the gully at Perseverance Valley?

“Opportunity will traverse to the head of the gully system [at Perseverance] and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.

“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”

Perspective view of Opportunity’s traverse along Endeavour crater rim over the last few weeks towards the Perseverance Valley “spillway” on Mars during Spring 2017. The entry point for the planned drive back into the crater is visible as the low notch just to the left (east) of the current (sol 4718) rover position. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/NMMNH /Larry Crumpler

Exploring the ancient valley is the main science destination of the current two-year extended mission (EM #10) for the teenaged robot, that officially began Oct. 1, 2016. It’s just the latest in a series of extensions going back to the end of Opportunity’s prime mission in April 2004.

What are the immediate tasks ahead that Opportunity must accomplish before descending down the gully to thoroughly and efficiently investigate the research objectives?

In a nutshell, extensive imaging from a local high point promontory to create a long-baseline 3 D stereo image of the valley and a “walk-about” to assess the local geology.

The rover is collecting images from two widely separated points at a dip at the valley spillway to build an “extraordinarily detailed three-dimensional analysis of the terrain” called a digital elevation map.

“Opportunity has been working on a panorama from the overlook for the past couple of sols. The idea is to get a good overview of the valley from a high point before driving down it,” Crumpler explains.

“But before we drive down the valley, we want to get a good sense of the geologic features here on the head of the valley. It could come in handy as we drive down the valley and may help us understand some things, particularly the lithology of any materials we find on the valley floor or at the terminus down near the crater floor.”

“So we will be doing a short “walk-about” here on the outside of the crater rim near the “spillway” into the valley.”

“We will drive down it to further assess its origin and to further explore the structure and stratigraphy of this large impact crater.”

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover passed near this small, 90-foot-wide and relatively fresh crater in April 2017, during the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 16 mission to the moon. The rover team chose to call it “Orion Crater,” after the Apollo 16 lunar module, Orion, which carried astronauts John Young and Charles Duke to and from the surface of the moon in April 1972 while crewmate Ken Mattingly piloted the Apollo 16 command module, Casper, in orbit around the moon. The rover’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) recorded this view assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4712 (26 April 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum – as the second half of a stupendous sister act.

Expected to last just 3 months or 90 days, Opportunity has now endured nearly 13 ½ years or an unfathomable 53 times beyond the “warrantied” design lifetime.

Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.

Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour almost six years – since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.

“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Crumpler.

Exactly what the geologic process was that carved Perseverance Valley into the rim of Endeavour Crater billions of years ago has not yet been determined, but there are a wide range of options researchers are considering.

“Among the possibilities: It might have been flowing water, or might have been a debris flow in which a small amount of water lubricated a turbulent mix of mud and boulders, or might have been an even drier process, such as wind erosion,” say NASA scientists.

“The mission’s main objective with Opportunity at this site is to assess which possibility is best supported by the evidence still in place.”

Extensive imaging with the mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras is currently in progress.

“The long-baseline stereo imaging will be used to generate a digital elevation map that will help the team carefully evaluate possible driving routes down the valley before starting the descent,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of JPL, in a statement.

“Reversing course back uphill when partway down could be difficult, so finding a path with minimum obstacles will be important for driving Opportunity through the whole valley. Researchers intend to use the rover to examine textures and compositions at the top, throughout the length and at the bottom, as part of investigating the valley’s history.”

The team is also dealing with a new wheel issue and evaluating fixes. The left-front wheel is stuck due to an actuator stall.

“The rover experienced a left-front wheel steering actuator stall on Sol 4750 (June 4, 2017) leaving the wheel ‘toed-out’ by 33 degrees,” the team reported in a new update.

Thus the extensive Pancam panorama is humorously being called the “Sprained Ankle Panorama.” Selected high-value targets of the surrounding area will be imaged with the full 13-filter Pancam suite.

After reaching the bottom of Perseverance Valley, Opportunity will explore the craters interior for the first time during the mission.

“Once down at the end of the valley, Opportunity will be directed to explore the crater fill on a drive south at the foot of the crater walls,” states Crumpler.

As of today, June 17, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived over 4763 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.

Opportunity has taken over 220,800 images and traversed over 27.87 miles (44.86 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).

NASA’s Opportunity rover acquired this Martian panoramic view from a promontory that overlooks Perseverance Valley below – scanning from north to south. It is centered on due East and into the interior of Endeavour crater. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor in the center of the panorama. The far rim of Endeavour crater is seen in the distance, beyond the dark floor. Rover deck and wheel tracks at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4730 (14 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of Sol 4759 (June 13, 2017) the power output from solar array energy production is currently 343 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.842 and a solar array dust factor of 0.529, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter later in 2017. It will count as Opportunity’s 8th winter on Mars.

“The science team is really jazzed at starting to see this area up close and looking for clues to help us distinguish among multiple hypotheses about how the valley formed,” said Opportunity Project Scientist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around and across to vast Endeavour crater on Dec. 19, 2016, as she climbs steep slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. Note rover wheel tracks at center. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4587 (19 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

And NASA continues building the next two robotic missions due to touch down in 2018 and 2020.

NASA as well is focusing its human spaceflight effort on sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket and Orion deep space crew capsule.

13 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2017. This map shows the entire 44 kilometer (27 mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during over 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4763 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at the head of Perseverance Valley. After studying Spirit Mound and ascending back uphill the rover has reached her next destination in May 2017- the Martian water carved gully at Perseverance Valley near Orion crater. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the Opportunity rover and upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 17-19: “Opportunity Mars rover, SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

This graphic shows the route that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove in its final approach to “Perseverance Valley” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater during spring 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/NMMNH
13 Years on Mars! On Christmas Day 2016, NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around vast Endeavour crater as she ascends steep rocky slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4593 (25 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 3

book-cover-image-final-incredible-001
Following is the final excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 3 of 3 posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. The book is available in print or e-book (Kindle or Nook) Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

How to Drive a Mars Rover

How does Curiosity know where and how to drive across Mars’ surface? You might envision engineers at JPL using joysticks, similar to those used for remote control toys or video games. But unlike RC driving or gaming, the Mars rover drivers don’t have immediate visual inputs or a video screen to see where the rover is going. And just like at the landing, there is always a time delay of when a command is sent to the rover and when it is received on Mars.

“It’s not driving in a real-time interactive sense because of the time lag,” explained John Michael Morookian, who leads the team of rover drivers.

The actual job title of Morookian and his team are ‘Rover Planners,’ which precisely describes what they do. Instead of ‘driving’ the rovers per se; they plan out the route in advance, program specialized software, and upload the instructions to Curiosity.

“We use images taken by the rover of its surroundings,” said Morookian. “We have a set of stereo images from four black-and-white Navigation Cameras, along with images from the Hazcams (hazard avoidance cameras), supported by high-resolution color images from the MastCam that give us details about the nature of the terrain ahead and clues about types of rocks and minerals at the site. This helps identify structures that look interesting to the scientists.”

Using all available data, they can create a three-dimensional visualization of the terrain with specialized software called the Rover Sequencing and Visualization Program (RSVP).

“This is basically a Mars simulator and we put a simulated Curiosity in a panorama of the scene to visualize how the rover could traverse on its path,” Morookian explained. “We can also put on stereo glasses, which allow our eyes to see the scene in three dimensions as if we were there with the rover.

In virtual reality, the rover drivers can manipulate the scene and the rover to test every possibility of which routes are the best and what areas to avoid. There, they can make all the mistakes (get stuck in a dune, tip the rover, crash into a big rock, drive off a precipice) and perfect the driving sequence while the real rover remains safe on Mars.
“The scientists also review the images for features that are interesting and consult with the Rover Planners to help define a path. Then we compose the detailed commands that are necessary to get Curiosity from Point A to Point B along that path,” Morookian said. “”We can also incorporate the commands needed to give the rover direction to make contact with the site using its robotic arm.”

 When Curiosity's Navigation Cameras (Navcams) take black-and-white images and send them back to Earth each day, rover planners combine them with other rover data to create 3D terrain models. By adding a computerized 3D rover model to the terrain model, rover planners can understand better the rover's position, as well as distances to, and scale of, features in the landscape. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
When Curiosity’s Navigation Cameras (Navcams) take black-and-white images and send them back to Earth each day, rover planners combine them with other rover data to create 3D terrain models. By adding a computerized 3D rover model to the terrain model, rover planners can understand better the rover’s position, as well as distances to, and scale of, features in the landscape. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

So, every night the rover is commanded to shut down for eight hours to recharge its batteries with the nuclear generator. But first Curiosity sends data to Earth, including pictures of the terrain and any science information. On Earth, the Rover Planners take that data, do their planning work, complete the software programing and beam the information back to Mars. Then Curiosity wakes up, downloads the instructions and sets to work. And the cycle repeats.

Curiosity also has an AutoNav feature which allows the rover to traverse areas the team hasn’t seen yet in images. So, it could go over the hill and down the other side to uncharted territory, with the AutoNav sensing potential hazards.

“We don’t use it too often because it is computationally expensive, meaning it takes much longer for the rover to operate in that mode,” Morookian said. “We often find it’s a better trade to just come in the next day, look at the images and drive as far as we can see.”

A view of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where all the data going both to and from all planetary missions is sent and received via the Deep Space Network. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.
A view of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where all the data going both to and from all planetary missions is sent and received via the Deep Space Network. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

As Morookian showed me the various rooms used by rover planning teams at JPL, he explained how they need to operate over a number of different timescales.

“We not only have the daily route planning,” he said, “but also do long-range strategic planning using orbital imagery from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and choose paths based on features seen from orbit. Our team works strategically, looking many months out to define the best paths.”

Another process called Supra-Tactical looks out to just the next week. This involves science planners managing and refining the types of activities the rover will be doing in the short term. Also, since no one on the team lives on Mars Time anymore, on Fridays the Rover Planners work out the plans for several days.

“Since we don’t work weekends, Friday plans contain multiple sols of activities,” Morookian said. “Two parallel teams decide which days the rover will drive and which days it will do other activities, such as work with the robotic arm or other instruments.”

The data that comes down from the rover over the weekend is monitored, however, and if there is a problem, a team is called in to do a more detailed assessment. Morookian indicated they’ve had to engage the emergency weekend team several times, but so far there have been no serious problems. “It does keep us on our toes, however,” he said.
The rover features a number of reactive safety checks on the amount of overall tilt of the rover deck and the articulation of the suspension system of the wheels, so if the rover is going over an object that is too large, it will automatically stop.

Curiosity wasn’t built for speed. It was designed to travel up to 660 feet (200 meters) in a day, but it rarely travels that far in a Sol. By early 2016 the rover had driven a total of about 7.5 miles (12 km) across Mars’ surface.

This image shows a close-up of track marks left by the Curiosity rover. Holes in the rover's wheels, seen here in this view, leave imprints in the tracks that can be used to help the rover drive more accurately. The imprint is Morse code for ‘JPL,’ and aids in tracking how far the rover has traveled. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
This image shows a close-up of track marks left by the Curiosity rover. Holes in the rover’s wheels, seen here in this view, leave imprints in the tracks that can be used to help the rover drive more accurately. The imprint is Morse code for ‘JPL,’ and aids in tracking how far the rover has traveled. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

There are several ways to determine how far Curiosity has traveled, but the most accurate measurement is called ‘Visual Odometry.’ Curiosity has specialized holes in its wheels in the shape of Morse code letters, spelling out ‘JPL’ – a nod to the home of the rover’s science and engineering teams – across the Martian soil.

“Visual odometry works by comparing the most recent pair of stereo images collected roughly every meter over the drive,” said Morookian. “Individual features in the scene are matched and tracked to provide a measure of how the camera (and thus the rover) has translated and rotated in 3 dimensional space between the two images and it tells us in a very real sense how far Curiosity has gone.”

Careful inspection of the rover tracks can reveal the type of traction the wheels have and if they have slipped, for instance due to high slopes or sandy ground.

Unfortunately, Curiosity now has new holes in its wheels that aren’t supposed to be there.

Rover Problems

Morookian and Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada both expressed relief and satisfaction that overall — this far into the mission — Curiosity is a fairly healthy rover. The entire science payload is currently operating at nearly full capability. But the engineering team keeps an eye on a few issues.

“Around sol 400, we realized the wheels were wearing faster than we expected,” Vasavada said.

The team operating the Curiosity Mars rover uses the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover's arm to check the condition of the wheels at routine intervals. This image of Curiosity's left-middle and left-rear wheels is part of an inspection set taken on April 18, 2016, during the 1,315th sol of the rover's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
The team operating the Curiosity Mars rover uses the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm to check the condition of the wheels at routine intervals. This image of Curiosity’s left-middle and left-rear wheels is part of an inspection set taken on April 18, 2016, during the 1,315th sol of the rover’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

And the wear didn’t consist of just little holes; the team started to see punctures and nasty tears. Engineers realized the holes were being created by the hard, jagged rocks the rover was driving over during that time.

“We weren’t fully expecting the kind of ‘pointy’ rocks that were doing damage,” Vasavada said. “We also did some testing and saw how one wheel could push another wheel into a rock, making the damage worse. We now drive more carefully and don’t drive as long as we have in the past. We’ve been able to level off the damage to a more acceptable rate.”

Early in the mission, Curiosity’s computer went into ‘safe mode’ several times, as Curiosity’s software recognized a problem, and the response was to disallow further activity and phone home.

Specialized fault protection software runs throughout the modules and instruments, and when a problem occurs, the rover stops and sends data called ‘event records’ to Earth. The records include various categories of urgency, and in early 2015, the rover sent a message that essentially said, “This is very, very bad.” The drill on the rover’s arm had experienced a fluctuation in an electrical current – like a short circuit.

“Curiosity’s software has the ability to detect shorts, like the ground fault circuit interrupter you have in your bathroom,” Morookian explained, “except this one tells you ‘this is very, very bad’ instead of just giving you a yellow light.”

Since the team can’t go to Mars and repair a problem, everything is fixed either by sending software updates to the rover or by changing operational procedures.

Curiosity’s drill in the turret of tools at the end of the robotic arm positioned in contact with the rock surface for the first drilling of the mission on the 170th sol of Curiosity's work on Mars (Jan. 27, 2013) in Yellowknife Bay. The picture was taken by the front Hazard-Avoidance Camera (Hazcam). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Curiosity’s drill in the turret of tools at the end of the robotic arm positioned in contact with the rock surface for the first drilling of the mission on the 170th sol of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Jan. 27, 2013) in Yellowknife Bay. The picture was taken by the front Hazard-Avoidance Camera (Hazcam). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“We are just more careful now with how we use the drill,” Vasavada said, “and don’t drill with full force at the beginning, but slowly ramp up. It’s sort of like how we drive now, more gingerly but it still gets the job done. It hasn’t been a huge impact as of yet.”

A lighter touch on the drill also was necessary for the softer mudstones and sandstones the rover encountered. Morookian said there was concern the layered rocks might not hold up under the assault of the standard drilling protocol, and so they adjusted the technique to use the lowest ‘settings’ that still allows the drill to make sufficient progress into the rock.

But opportunities to use the drill are increasing as Curiosity begins its traverse up the mountain. The rover is traveling through what Vasavada calls a “target rich, very interesting area,” as the science team works to tie together the geological context of everything they are seeing in the images.

Finding Balance on Mars

While the diversion at Yellowknife Bay allowed the team to make some major discoveries, they felt pressure to get to Mt. Sharp, so “drove like hell for a year,” Vasavada said.

Now on the mountain, there is still the pressure to make the most of the mission, with the goal of making it through at least four different rock units – or layers — on Mt. Sharp. Each layer could be like a chapter in the book of Mars’ history.

 A portion of a panorama from Curiosity’s Mastcam shows the rugged surface of ‘Naukluft Plateau’ plus part of the rim of Gale Crater, taken on April 4, 2016 or Sol 1301. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A portion of a panorama from Curiosity’s Mastcam shows the rugged surface of ‘Naukluft Plateau’ plus part of the rim of Gale Crater, taken on April 4, 2016 or Sol 1301. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Exploring Mt. Sharp is fascinating,” Vasavada said, “and we’re trying to maintain a mix between really great discoveries, which – you hate to say — slows us down, and getting higher on the mountain. Looking closely at a rock in front of you means you’ll never be able to go over and look at that other interesting rock over there.”

Vasavada and Morookian both said it’s a challenge to preserve that balance every day — to find what’s called the ‘knee in the curve’ or ‘sweet spot’ of the perfect optimization between driving and stopping for science.

Then there’s the balance between stopping to do a full observation with all the instruments and doing ‘flyby science’ where less intense observations are made.

“We take the observations we can, and generate all the hypotheses we can in real time,” Vasavada said. “Even if we’re left with 100 open questions, we know we can answer the questions later as long as we know we’ve taken enough data.”

Curiosity’s primary target is not the summit, but instead a region about 1,330 feet (400 meters) up where geologists expect to find the boundary between rocks that saw a lot of water in their history, and those that didn’t. That boundary will provide insight into Mars’ transition from a wet planet to dry, filling in a key gap in the understanding of the planet’s history.

he Curiosity rover recorded this view of the Sun setting at the close of the mission's 956th sol (April 15, 2015), from the rover's location in Gale Crater. This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity. The image comes from the left-eye camera of the rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M University.
he Curiosity rover recorded this view of the Sun setting at the close of the mission’s 956th sol (April 15, 2015), from the rover’s location in Gale Crater. This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity. The image comes from the left-eye camera of the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M University.

No one really knows how long Curiosity will last, or if it will surprise everyone like its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity. Having made it past the ‘prime mission’ of one year on Mars (two Earth years), and now in the extended mission, the one big variable is the RTG power source. While the available power will start to steadily decrease, both Vasavada and Morookian don’t expect that to be in an issue for at least four more Earth years, and with the right “nurturing,” power could last for a dozen years or more.

But they also know there’s no way to predict how long Curiosity will go, or what unexpected event might end the mission.

The Beast

Does Curiosity have a personality like the previous Mars rovers?

“Actually no, we don’t seem to anthropomorphize this rover like people did with Spirit and Opportunity,” Vasavada said. “We haven’t bonded emotionally with it. Sociologists have actually been studying this.” He shook his head with an amused smile.

Vasavada indicated it might have something to do with Curiosity’s size.

“I think of it as a giant beast,” he said straight-faced. “But not in a mean way at all.”

Curiosity appears to be photobombing Mount Sharp in this selfie image, a mosaic created from several MAHLI images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Edited by Jason Major.
Curiosity appears to be photobombing Mount Sharp in this selfie image, a mosaic created from several MAHLI images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Edited by Jason Major.

What has come to come to characterize this mission, Vasavada said, is the complexity of it, in every dimension: the human component of getting 500 people to work and cooperate together while optimizing everyone’s talents; keeping the rover safe and healthy; and keeping ten instruments going every day, which are sometimes doing completely unrelated science tasks.

“Every day is our own little ‘seven minutes of terror,’ where so many things have to go right every single day,” Vasavada said. “There are a million potential issues and interactions, and you have to constantly be thinking about all the ways things can go wrong, because there are a million ways you can mess up. It’s an intricate dance, but fortunately we have a great team.”

Then he added with a smile, “This mission is exciting though, even if it’s a beast.”

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Author Nancy Atkinson at JPL with a model of the Curiosity Rover.
Author Nancy Atkinson at JPL with a model of the Curiosity Rover.

Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 2

book-cover-image-final-incredible-001
Following is Part 2 of an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 2 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” You can read Part 1 here. The book is available in print or e-book (Kindle or Nook) Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Living on Mars Time

The landing occurred at 10:30 pm in California. The MSL team had little time to celebrate, transitioning immediately to mission operations and planning the rover’s first day of activity. The team’s first planning meeting started at 1 o’clock in the morning, ending about 8 a.m. They had been up all night, putting in a nearly 40-hour day.

This was a rough beginning of the mission for the scientists and engineers who needed to live on ‘Mars Time.’

A day on Mars day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s day, and for the first 90 Mars days – called sols — of the mission, the entire team worked in shifts around the clock to constantly monitor the newly landed rover. To operate on the same daily schedule as the rover meant a perpetually shifting sleep/wake cycle where the MSL team would alter their schedules 40 minutes every day to stay in sync with the day and night schedules on Mars. If team members came into work at 9:00 a.m., the next day, they’d come in at 9:40 a.m., and the next day at 10:20 a.m., and so on.

Those who have lived through Mars Time say their bodies continually feel jet-lagged. Some people slept at JPL so as not to disrupt their family’s schedule, some wore two watches so they would know what time it was on two planets.

About 350 scientists from around the world were involved with MSL and many of them stayed at JPL for the first 90 sols of the mission, living on Mars Time.

But it took less than 60 Earth days for the team to announce Curiosity’s first big discovery.

Water, Water …

A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
A 16-ft. (5 m) high sand dune on Mars called Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 m) per Earth year. This image is part of a 360 degree panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Dec. 18, 2015 or the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Ashwin Vasavada grew up in California and has fond childhood memories of visiting state and national parks in the southwest United States with his family, playing among sand dunes and hiking in the mountains. He’s now able to do both on another planet, vicariously through Curiosity. The day I visited Vasavada at his office at JPL in early 2016, the rover was navigating through a field of giant sand dunes at the base of Mount Sharp, with some dunes towering 30 feet (9 meters) above the rover.

“It’s just fascinating to see dunes close up on another planet,” Vasavada said. “And the closer we get to the mountain, the more fantastic the geology gets. So much has gone on there, and we have so little understanding of it … as of yet.”

At the time we talked, Curiosity was approaching four Earth years on Mars. The rover is now studying those enticing sedimentary layers on Mt. Sharp in closer detail. But first, it needed to navigate through the “Bagnold Dunes” which form a barrier along the northwestern flank of the mountain. Here, Curiosity is doing what Vasavada calls “flyby science,” stopping briefly to sample and study the sand grains of the dunes while moving through the area as quickly as possible.

Now working as the lead Project Scientist for the mission, Vasavada plays an even larger role in coordinating the mission.

“It’s a constant balance of doing things quickly, carefully and efficiently, as well as using the instruments to their fullest,” he said.

Since the successful August 2012 landing, Curiosity has sent back tens of thousands of images from Mars – from expansive panoramas to extreme close-ups of rocks and sand grains, all of which are helping to tell the story of Mars’ past.

‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
‘Selfies’ taken by the Curiosity rover are actually a mosaic created from numerous images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. However, the arm is not shown in the selfies, because with the wrist motions and turret rotations used in pointing the camera for the component images, the arm was positioned out of the shot in the frames or portions of frames used in this mosaic. However, the shadow of the arm is visible on the ground. This low-angle selfie shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The images the public seems to love the most are the ‘selfies,’ the photos the rover takes of itself sitting on Mars. The selfies aren’t just a single image like the ones we take with our cell phones, but a mosaic created from dozens of separate images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Other fan favorites are the pictures Curiosity takes of the magnificent Martian landscape, like a tourist documenting its journey.

Vasavada has a unique personal favorite.

“For me, the most meaningful picture from Curiosity really isn’t that great of an image,” he said, “but it was one of our first discoveries so it has an emotional tie to it.”

Within the first 50 sols, Curiosity took pictures of what geologists call conglomerates: a rock made of pebbles cemented together. But these were no ordinary pebbles — they were pebbles worn by flowing water. Serendipitously, the rover had found an ancient streambed where water once flowed vigorously. From the size of pebbles, the science team could interpret the water was moving about 3 feet (1 meter) per second, with a depth somewhere between a few inches to several feet.

This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This geological feature on Mars is exposed bedrock made up of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate, and is evidence for an ancient, flowing stream. Some of embedded and loose gravel are round in shape, leading the Curiosity science team to conclude it were transported by a vigorous flow of water. Curiosity’s 100-millimeter Mastcam telephoto lens on its 39th sol of the mission (Sept. 14, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“When you see this picture, and whether you are a gardener or geologist, you know what this means,” Vasasvada said excitedly. “At Home Depot, the rounded rock for landscaping are called river pebbles! It was mind-blowing to me to think that the rover was driving through a streambed. That picture really brought home there was actually water flowing here long ago, probably ankle to hip deep.”

Vasavada looked down. “It still gives me the shivers, just thinking about it,” he said, with his passion for exploration and discovery visibly evident.

From that early discovery, Curiosity continued to find more water-related evidence. The team took a calculated gamble and instead of driving straight towards Mt. Sharp, took a slight detour to the east to an area dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay.’
“Yellowknife Bay was something we saw with the orbiters,” Vasavada explained, “and there appeared to be a debris fan fed by a river—evidence for flowing water in the ancient past.”

This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at "Murray Buttes," and the path planned for reaching destinations at "Hematite Unit" and "Clay Unit" on lower Mount Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in September 2016 at “Murray Buttes,” and the path planned for reaching destinations at “Hematite Unit” and “Clay Unit” on lower Mount Sharp.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Here, Curiosity fulfilled ones of its main goals: determining whether Gale Crater ever was habitable for simple life forms. The answer was a resounding yes. The rover sampled two stone slabs with the drill, feeding half-baby-aspirin-sized portions to SAM, the onboard lab. SAM identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more —the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes.

Data gathered by Curiosity’s other instruments constructed a portrait detailing how this site was once a muddy lakebed with mild – not acidic – water. Add in the essential elemental ingredients for life, and long ago, Yellowknife Bay would have been the perfect spot for living organisms to hang out. While this finding doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, it shows the raw ingredients existed for life to get started there at one time, in a benign environment.

“Finding the habitable environment in Yellowknife Bay was wonderful because it really showed the capability our mission has to measure so many different things,” Vasavada said. “A wonderful picture came together of streams that flowed into a lake environment. This was exactly what we were sent there to find, but we didn’t think we’d find it that early in the mission.”

Still, this lakebed could have been created by a one-time event over just hundreds of years. The ‘jackpot’ would be to find evidence of long-term water and warmth.

That discovery took a little longer. But personally, it means more to Vasavada.

Mars’ climate was one of Vasavada’s early interests in his career and he spent years creating models, trying to understand Mars’ ancient history.

“I grew up with pictures of Mars from the Viking mission,” he said, “and thinking of it as a barren place with jagged volcanic rock and a bunch of sand. Then I had done all this theoretical work about Mars climate, that rivers and oceans perhaps once existed on Mars, but we had no real evidence.”

That’s why the discovery made by Curiosity in late 2015 is so exciting to Vasavada and his team.

“We didn’t just see the rounded pebbles and remnants of the muddy lake bottom at Yellowknife Bay, but all along the route,” Vasavada said. “We saw river pebbles first, then tilted sandstones where the river emptied into lakes. Then as we got to Mt. Sharp, we saw huge expanses of rock made of the silt that settled out from the lakes.”

The explanation that best fits the “morphology” in this region — that is, the configuration and evolution of rocks and land forms – is rivers formed deltas as they emptied into a lake. This likely occurred 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago. And the rivers delivered sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Curiosity picture showing the layers and color variations on Mount Sharp, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

“My gosh, we were seeing this full system now,” Vasavada explained, “showing how the entire lower few hundred meters of Mount Sharp were likely laid down by these river and lake sediments. That means this event didn’t take hundreds or thousands of years; it required millions of years for lakes and rivers to be present to slowly build up, millimeter by millimeter, the bottom of the mountain.”

For that, Mars also needed a thicker atmosphere than it has now, and a greenhouse gas composition that Vasavada said they haven’t quite figured out yet.

But then, somehow dramatic climate change caused the water to disappear and winds in the crater carved the mountain to its current shape.

The rover had landed in exactly the right place, because here in one area was a record of much of Mars’ environmental history, including evidence of a major shift in the planet’s climate, when the water that once covered Gale Crater with sediment dried up.

“This all is a significant driver now for what we need to explain about Mars’ early climate,” Vasavada said. “You don’t get millions of years of climate change from a single event like a meteor hit. This discovery has broad implications for the entire planet, not just Gale Crater.”

Other Discoveries

• Silica: The rover made a completely unanticipated discovery of high-content silica rocks as it approached Mt. Sharp. “This means that the rest of the normal elements that form rocks were stripped away, or that a lot of extra silica was added somehow,” Vasavada said, “both of which are very interesting, and very different from rocks we had seen before. It’s such a multifaceted and curious discovery, we’re going to take a while figuring it out.”

• Methane on Mars: Methane is usually a sign of activity involving organic matter — even, potentially, of life. On Earth, about 90 percent of atmospheric methane is produced from the breakdown of organic matter. On Mars, methane has been detected by other missions and telescopes over the years, but it was tenuous – the readings seemed to come and go, and are hard to verify. In 2014, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument observed a ten-fold increase in methane over a two-month period. What caused the brief and sudden increase? Curiosity will continue to monitor readings of methane, and hopefully provide an answer to the decades-long debate.

• Radiation Risks for Human Explorers: Both during her trip to Mars and on the surface, Curiosity measured the high-energy radiation from the Sun and space that poses a risk astronauts. NASA will use data from the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument Curiosity’s data to design future missions to be safe for human explorers.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of this chapter, including ‘How To Drive a Mars Rover, and ‘The Beast.’ Part 1 is available here.

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Book Excerpt: “Incredible Stories From Space,” Roving Mars With Curiosity, part 1

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Following is an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” which will be released tomorrow, Dec. 20, 2016. The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 1 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” The book is available for order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Seven Minutes of Terror

It takes approximately seven minutes for a moderate-sized spacecraft – such as a rover or a robotic lander — to descend through the atmosphere of Mars and reach the planet’s surface. During those short minutes, the spacecraft has to decelerate from its blazing incoming speed of about 13,000 mph (20,900 kph) to touch down at just 2 mph (3 kph) or less.

This requires a Rube Goldberg-like series of events to take place in perfect sequence, with precise choreography and timing. And it all needs to happen automatically via computer, with no input from anyone on Earth. There is no way to guide the spacecraft remotely from our planet, about 150 million miles (250 million km) away. At that distance, the radio signal delay time from Earth to Mars takes over 13 minutes. Therefore, by the time the seven-minute descent is finished, all those events have happened – or not happened – and no one on Earth knows which. Either your spacecraft sits magnificently on the surface of Mars or lies in a crashed heap.

A depiction of the numerous events required for the Curiosity rover to land successfully on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.
A depiction of the numerous events required for the Curiosity rover to land successfully on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.

That’s why scientists and engineers from the missions to Mars call it “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

And with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which launched from Earth in November of 2011, the fear and trepidation about what is officially called the ‘Entry, Descent and Landing’ (EDL) increased exponentially. MSL features a 1-ton (900 kg), 6-wheeled rover named Curiosity, and this rover was going to use a brand new, untried landing system.

To date, all Mars landers and rovers have used — in order — a rocket-guided entry, a heat shield to protect and slow the vehicle, then a parachute, followed by thrusters to slow the vehicle even more. Curiosity would use this sequence as well. However, a final, crucial component encompassed one of the most complex landing devices ever flown.

Artists concept of the moment the Curiosity rover touches down on the Martian surface, suspended on a bridle beneath the spacecraft's descent stage. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artists concept of the moment the Curiosity rover touches down on the Martian surface, suspended on a bridle beneath the spacecraft’s descent stage. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dubbed the “Sky Crane,” a hovering rocket stage would lower the rover on 66 ft. (20 meter) cables of Vectran rope like a rappelling mountaineer, with the rover soft-landing directly on its wheels. This all needed to be completed in a matter of seconds, and when the on-board computer sensed touchdown, pyrotechnics would sever the ropes, and the hovering descent stage would zoom away at full throttle to crash-land far from Curiosity.

Complicating matters even further, this rover was going to attempt the most precise off-world landing ever, setting down inside a crater next to a mountain the height of Mount Rainier.

A major part of the uncertainty was that engineers could never test the entire landing system all together, in sequence. And nothing could simulate the brutal atmospheric conditions and lighter gravity present on Mars except being on Mars itself. Since the real landing would be the first time the full-up Sky Crane would be used, there were questions: What if the cables didn’t separate? What if the descent stage kept descending right on top of the rover?

If the Sky Crane didn’t work, it would be game-over for a mission that had already overcome so much: technical problems, delays, cost overruns, and the wrath of critics who said this $2.5 billion Mars rover was bleeding money away from the rest of NASA’s planetary exploration program.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Missions to Mars

With its red glow in the nighttime sky, Mars has beckoned skywatchers for centuries. As the closest planet to Earth that offers any potential for future human missions or colonization, it has been of great interest in the age of space exploration. To date, over 40 robotic missions have been launched to the Red Planet … or more precisely, 40-plus missions have been attempted.

Including all US, European, Soviet/Russian and Japanese efforts, more than half of Mars missions have failed, either because of a launch disaster, a malfunction en route to Mars, a botched attempt to slip into orbit, or a catastrophic landing. While recent missions have had greater success than our first pioneering attempts to explore Mars in situ (on location) space scientists and engineers are only partially kidding when they talk about things like a ‘Great Galactic Ghoul’ or the ‘Mars Curse’ messing up the missions.

View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But there have been wonderful successes, too. Early missions in the 1960’s and 70’s such as Mariner orbiters and Viking landers showed us a strikingly beautiful, although barren and rocky world, thereby dashing any hopes of ‘little green men’ as our planetary neighbors. But later missions revealed a dichotomy: magnificent desolation combined with tantalizing hints of past — or perhaps even present day – water and global activity.

Today, Mars’ surface is cold and dry, and its whisper-thin atmosphere doesn’t shield the planet from bombardment of radiation from the Sun. But indications are the conditions on Mars weren’t always this way. Visible from orbit are channels and intricate valley systems that appear to have been carved by flowing water.

For decades, planetary scientists have debated whether these features formed during brief, wet periods caused by cataclysmic events such as a massive asteroid strike or sudden climate calamity, or if they formed over millions of years when Mars may have been continuously warm and wet. Much of the evidence so far is ambiguous; these features could have formed either way. But billions of years ago, if there were rivers and oceans, just like on Earth, life might have taken hold.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the ‘Mars Yard’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover - Sojourner - in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Three Generations of Mars Rovers in the ‘Mars Yard’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover – Sojourner – in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Rovers

The Curiosity rover is the fourth mobile spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars’ surface. The first was a 23-pound (10.6 kg) rover named Sojourner that landed on a rock-covered Martian plain on July 4, 1997. About the size of a microwave oven, the 2-foot- (65 cm) long Sojourner never traversed more than 40 feet away from its lander and base station. The rover and lander together constituted the Pathfinder mission, which was expected to last about a week. Instead, it lasted nearly three months and the duo returned 2.6 gigabits of data, snapping more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as taking chemical measurements of rocks and soil and studying Mars’ atmosphere and weather. It identified traces of a warmer, wetter past for Mars.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover. Rover takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing.  Credit: NASA
Sojourner – NASA’s 1st Mars Rover. Rover takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Credit: NASA

The mission took place when the Internet was just gaining popularity, and NASA decided to post pictures from the rover online as soon as they were beamed to Earth. This ended up being one of the biggest events in the young Internet’s history, with NASA’s website (and mirror sites set up for the high demand) receiving over 430 million hits in the first 20 days after landing.

Pathfinder, too, utilized an unusual landing system. Instead of using thrusters to touch down on the surface, engineers concocted a system of giant airbags to surround and protect the spacecraft. After using the conventional system of a rocket-guided entry, heat shield, parachutes and thrusters, the airbags inflated and the cocooned lander was dropped from 100 feet (30 m) above the ground. Bouncing several times across Mars’ surface times like a giant beach ball, Pathfinder eventually came to a stop, the airbags deflated and the lander opened up to allow the rover to emerge.

While that may sound like a crazy landing strategy, it worked so well that NASA decided to use larger versions of the airbags for the next rover mission: two identical rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) are about the size of a riding lawn mower, at 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long, weighing about 400 lbs (185 kilograms). Spirit landed successfully near Mars’ equator on January 4, 2004, and three weeks later Opportunity bounced down on the other side of the planet. The goal of MER was to find evidence of past water on Mars, and both rovers hit the jackpot. Among many findings, Opportunity found ancient rock outcrops that were formed in flowing water and Spirit found unusual cauliflower-shaped silica rocks that scientists are still studying, but they may provide clues to potential ancient Martian life.

A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Incredibly, at this writing (2016) the Opportunity rover is still operating, driving more than a marathon (26 miles/42 km) and it continues to explore Mars at a large crater named Endeavour. Spirit, however, succumbed to a loss of power during the cold Martian winter in 2010 after getting stuck in a sandtrap. The two rovers far outlived their projected 90-day lifetime.

Somehow, the rovers each developed a distinct ‘personality’ – or, perhaps a better way to phrase it is that people assigned personalities to the robots. Spirit was a problem child and drama queen but had to struggle for every discovery; Opportunity, a privileged younger sister, and star performer, as new findings seemed to come easy for her. Spirit and Opportunity weren’t designed to be adorable, but the charming rovers captured the imaginations of children and seasoned space veterans alike. MER project manager John Callas once called the twin rovers “the cutest darn things out in the Solar System.” As the long-lived, plucky rovers overcame hazards and perils, they sent postcards from Mars every day. And Earthlings loved them for it.

Curiosity

While it’s long been on our space to-do list, we haven’t quite yet figured out how to send humans to Mars. We need bigger and more advanced rockets and spacecraft, better technology for things like life support and growing our own food, and we really don’t have the ability to land the very large payloads needed to create a human settlement on Mars.

But in the meantime – while we try to figure all that out — we have sent the robotic equivalent of a human geologist to the Red Planet. The car-sized Curiosity rover is armed with an array of seventeen cameras, a drill, a scoop, a hand lens, and even a laser. These tools resemble equipment geologists use to study rocks and minerals on Earth. Additionally, this rover mimics human activity by mountain climbing, eating (figuratively speaking), flexing its (robotic) arm, and taking selfies.

Artist concept of the Curiosity rover, with the various science instruments labeled. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Artist concept of the Curiosity rover, with the various science instruments labeled. Credit: NASA/JPL.

This roving robotic geologist is also a mobile chemistry lab. A total of ten instruments on the rover help search for organic carbon that might indicate the raw material required by life, and “sniff” the Martian air, trying to smell if gasses like methane — which could be a sign of life — are present. Curiosity’s robotic arm carries a Swiss Army knife of gadgets: a magnifying lens-like camera, a spectrometer to measure chemical elements, and a drill to bore inside rocks and feed samples to the laboratories named SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and) and CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy). The ChemCam laser can vaporize rock from up to 23 feet (7 meters) away, and identify the minerals from the spectrum of light emitted from the blasted rock. A weather station and radiation monitor round out the devices on board.

With these cameras and instruments, the rover becomes the eyes and hands for an international team of about 500 earthbound scientists.

While the previous Mars rovers used solar arrays to gather sunlight for power, Curiosity uses an RTG like New Horizons. The electricity generated from the RTG repeatedly powers rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and the RTG’s heat is also piped into the rover chassis to keep the interior electronics warm.

With Curiosity’s size and weight, the airbag landing system used by the previous rovers was out of the question. As NASA engineer Rob Manning explained, “You can’t bounce something that big.” The Sky Crane is an audacious solution.

Curiosity’s mission: figure out how Mars evolved over billions of years and determine if it once was — or even now is — capable of supporting microbial life.

Curiosity’s target for exploration: a 3.4 mile (5.5 km) -high Mars mountain scientists call Mt. Sharp (formally known as Aeolis Mons) that sits in the middle of Gale Crater, a 96-mile (155-km) diameter impact basin.

Gale was chosen from 60 candidate sites. Data from orbiting spacecraft determined the mountain has dozens of layers of sedimentary rock, perhaps built over millions of years. These layers could tell the story of Mars’ geologic and climate history. Additionally, both the mountain and the crater appear to have channels and other features that look like they were carved by flowing water.

The plan: MSL would land in a lower, flatter part of the crater and carefully work its way upward towards the mountain, studying each layer, essentially taking a tour of the epochs of Mars’ geologic history.

The hardest part would be getting there. And the MSL team only had one chance to get it right.

Landing Night

Curiosity’s landing on August 5, 2012 was one of the most anticipated space exploration events in recent history. Millions of people watched events unfold online and on TV, with social media feeds buzzing with updates. NASA TV’s feed from JPL’s mission control was broadcast live on the screens in New York’s Time Square and at venues around the world hosting ‘landing parties.’

But the epicenter of action was at JPL, where hundreds of engineers, scientists and NASA officials gathered at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. The EDL team – all wearing matching light blue polo shirts — monitored computer consoles at mission control.

Two members of the team stood out: EDL team lead Adam Steltzner — who wears his hair in an Elvis-like pompadour — paced back and forth between the rows of consoles. Flight Director Bobak Ferdowski sported and an elaborate stars and stripes Mohawk. Obviously, in the twenty-first century, exotic hairdos have replaced the 1960’s black glasses and pocket protectors for NASA engineers.

MSL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada with a full scale model of the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.
MSL project scientist Ashwin Vasavada with a full scale model of the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.

At the time of the landing, Ashwin Vasavada was one of the longest serving scientists on the mission team, having joined MSL as the Deputy Project Scientist in 2004 when the rover was under construction. Back then, a big part of Vasavada’s job was working with the instrument teams to finalize the objectives of their instruments, and supervise technical teams to help develop the instruments and integrate them with the rover.

Each of the ten selected instruments brought a team of scientists, so with engineers, additional staff and students, there were hundreds of people getting the rover ready for launch. Vasavada helped coordinate every decision and modification that might affect the eventual science done on Mars. During the landing, however, all he could do was watch.

“I was in the room next door to the control room that was being shown on TV,” Vasavada said. “For the landing there was nothing I could do except realize the past eight years of my life and my entire future was all riding on that seven minutes of EDL.”

Plus, the fact that no would know the real fate of the rover until 13 minutes after the fact due to the radio delay time led to a feeling of helplessness for everyone at JPL.

“Although I was sitting in a chair,” Vasavada added, “I think I was mentally curled up in the fetal position.”

As Curiosity sped closer to Mars, three other veteran spacecraft already orbiting the planet moved into position to be able to keep an eye on the newcomer MSL as it transmitted information on its status. At first, MSL communicated directly to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth.

To make telemetry from the spacecraft as streamlined as possible during EDL, Curiosity sent out 128 simple but distinct tones indicating when steps in the landing process were activated. Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room announced each as they came: one sound indicated the spacecraft entered Mars’ atmosphere; another signaled the thrusters fired, guiding the spacecraft towards Gale Crater. Tentative clapping and smiles came from the team at Mission Control at the early tones, with emotions increasing as the spacecraft moved closer and closer to the surface.

Partway through the descent, MSL went below the Martian horizon, putting it out of communication with Earth. But the three orbiters — Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express — were ready to capture, record and relay data to the DSN.

Scenes from landing night for the Curiosity rover at JPL's Space Flight Operations Facility. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Scenes from landing night for the Curiosity rover at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Seamlessly, the tones kept coming to Earth as each step of the landing continued flawlessly. The parachute deployed. The heat shield dropped away. A tone signaled the descent stage carrying the rover let go of the parachute, another indicated powered flight and descent toward the surface. Another tone meant the Sky Crane began lowering the rover to the surface.

A tone arrived, indicating Curiosity’s wheels touched the surface, but even that didn’t mean success. The team had to make sure the Sky Crane flyaway maneuver worked.

Then, came the tone they were waiting for: “Touchdown confirmed,” cheered Chen. “We’re safe on Mars!”
Pandemonium and joy erupted in JPL’s mission control, at the landing party sites, and on social media. It seemed the world celebrated together at that moment. Cost overruns, delays, all the negative things ever said about the MSL mission seemed to vanish with the triumph of landing.

“Welcome to Mars!” the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi said at a press conference following the dramatic touchdown, “Tonight we landed, tomorrow we start exploring Mars. Our Curiosity has no limits.”

Curiosity’s Twitter feed announced its arrival on Mars on August 5, 2012. Credit: Twitter.
Curiosity’s Twitter feed announced its arrival on Mars on August 5, 2012. Credit: Twitter.

“The seven minutes actually went really fast,” said Vasavada. “It was over before we knew it. Then everybody was jumping up and down, even though most of us were still processing that it went so successfully.”

That the landing went so well — indeed perfectly — may have actually shocked some of the team at JPL. While they had rehearsed Curiosity’s landing several times, remarkably, they were never able to land the vehicle in their simulations.

“We tried to rehearse it very accurately,” Vasavada said, “so that everything was in synch — both the telemetry that we had simulated that would be coming from the spacecraft, along with real-time animations that had been created. It was a pretty complex thing, but it never actually worked. So the real, actual landing was the first time everything worked right.”

Curiosity was programmed to immediately take pictures of its surroundings. Within two minutes of the landing, the first images were beamed to Earth and popped up on the viewing screens at JPL.
“We had timed the orbiters to fly over during the landing, but didn’t know for sure if their relay link would last long enough to get the initial pictures down,” Vasavada said. “Those first pictures were fairly ratty because the protective covers were still on the cameras and the thrusters had kicked up a lot of dust on the covers. We couldn’t really see it very well but we still jumped up and down nevertheless because these were pictures from Mars.”

Amazingly, one of the first pictures showed exactly what the rover had been sent to study.
“We had landed with the cameras basically facing directly at Mt. Sharp,” Vasavada said, shaking his head. “In the HazCam (hazard camera) image, right between the wheels, we had this gorgeous shot. There was the mountain. It was like a preview of the whole mission, right in front of us.”

An image captured by the Curiosity rover shortly after it landed on the Red Planet on August 5, 2015, showing the rover's main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground and the dark band beyond are dunes. Credit; NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An image captured by the Curiosity rover shortly after it landed on the Red Planet on August 5, 2015, showing the rover’s main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover’s shadow can be seen in the foreground and the dark band beyond are dunes. Credit; NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of “Roving Mars With Curiosity,” with ‘Living on Mars Time’ and ‘Discoveries’

“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Drilling at Unfathomable Alien Landscapes – All in a Sols (Day’s) Work for Curiosity

Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte  with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras.  This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Our beyond magnificent Curiosity rover has just finished her latest Red Planet drilling campaign – at the rock target called “Quela” – into the simply unfathomable alien landscapes she is currently exploring at the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. And it’s all in a Sols (or Martian Day’s) work for our intrepid Curiosity!

“These images are literally out of this world.. I don’t think I have seen anything like them on Earth!” Jim Green, Planetary Sciences Director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., explained to Universe Today.

The “Murray Buttes” region is just chock full of the most stunning panoramic vistas that NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover has come upon to date. Observe and enjoy them in our exclusive new photo mosaics above and below.

“We always try to find some sort of Earth analog but these make exploring another world all worth it!” Green gushed in glee.

They fill the latest incredible chapter in her thus far four year long quest to trek many miles (km) from the Bradbury landing site across the floor of Gale Crater to reach the base region of humongous Mount Sharp.

And these adventures are just a prelude to the even more glorious vistas she’ll investigate from now on – as she climbs higher and higher on an expedition to thoroughly examine the mountains sedimentary layers and unravel billions and billions of years of Mars geologic and climatic history.

Drilling holes into Mars during the Red Planet trek and carefully analyzing the pulverized samples with the rovers pair of miniaturized chemistry laboratories (SAM and CheMin) is the route to the answer of how and why Mars changed from a warmer and wetter planet in the ancient past to the cold, dry and desolate world we see today.

The rock target named “Quela” is located at the base of one of the buttes dubbed “Murray Butte number 12,” according to the latest mission update from Prof. John Bridges, a Curiosity rover science team member from the University of Leicester, England.

It took two tries to get the drilling done due to a technical issue, but all went well in the end and it was well worth the effort at a place never before explored by an emissary from Earth.

“The drill (successful at second attempt) is at Quela.”

The full depth drilling was completed on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 using the percussion drill at the terminus of the outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm – as confirmed by imaging and further illustrated in our navcam camera photo mosaic.

And that immediately provided valuable insight into climate change on Mars.

“You can see how red and oxidised the tailings are, suggesting changing environmental conditions as we progress through the Mt. Sharp foothills,” Bridges explained in the mission update.

Curiosity bore holes measure approximately 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep.

Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this collage of Mastcam and MAHLI raw color images taken on Sol 1465. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS. Collage: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this collage of Mastcam and MAHLI raw color images taken on Sol 1465. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS. Collage: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

To give you the context of the Murray Buttes region and the drilling at Quela, the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic landscape views and up close views of the drilling using raw images from the variety of cameras at Curiosity’s disposal.

The next steps after boring into Quela were to “sieve the new sample, dump the unsieved fraction, and drop some of the sieved sample into CheMin,” says Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“But first, ChemCam will acquire passive spectra of the Quela drill tailings and use its laser to measure the chemistry of the wall of the new drill hole and of bedrock targets “Camaxilo” and “Okakarara.” Right Mastcam images of these targets are also planned.”

“After sunset, MAHLI will use its LEDs to take images of the drill hole from various angles and of the CheMin inlet to confirm that the sample was successfully delivered. Finally, the APXS will be placed over the drill tailings for an overnight integration.”

The rover had approached the butte from the south side several sols earlier to get in place, plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

Curiosity drills into Quela rock target in the Murray Buttes region on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target in the Murray Buttes region on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016, in this navcam camera mosaic, stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Sol after Sol the daily imagery transmitted back to eager researchers on Earth reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes.

“These are the landforms that dominate the landscape at this point in the traverse – The Murray Buttes,” says Bridges.

Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.  This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

What are the Murray Buttes?

“These are formed by a cap of hard aeolian rock that has been partially eroded back, overlying the Murray mudstone.”

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding.

The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity spent some six weeks or so traversing and exploring the Murray Buttes.

So after collecting all that great drilling data at Quela, the team is ready for even more spectacular new adventures!

“While the Murray Buttes were spectacular and interesting, it’s good to be back on the road again, as there is much more of Mt. Sharp to explore!” concludes Herkenhoff.

And the team is already commanding Curiosity to drive ahead in hot pursuit of the next drill target!

Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1470, September 24, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 355,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides  and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this Matscam color image taken the same Sol. Credit: NASSA/JPL/MSSS
Quela drill hole bored by Curiosity rover on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as seen in this MAHLI arm camera raw color image taken the same Sol. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 in this navcam camera mosaic.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity drills into Quela rock target on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 in this navcam camera mosaic. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Spectacular Panoramas from Curiosity Reveal Layered Martian Rock Formations Like America’s Desert Southwest

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The most stunning panoramic vistas likely ever snapped by NASA’s Curiosity rover reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes. They were just captured a week ago and look like a scene straight out of the hugely popular science fiction movie ‘The Martian’ – only they are real !!

Indeed several magnificent panoramas were taken by Curiosity in just the past week and you can see our newly stitched mosaic versions of several – above and below.

The rock formations lie in the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp where Curiosity has been exploring for roughly the past month. She just finished a campaign of detailed science observations and is set to bore a new sampling hole into the Red Planet, as you read this.

While scouting around the “Murray Buttes,” the SUV sized rover captured thousands of color and black and white raw images to document the geology of this thus far most unrivaled spot on the Red Planet ever visited by an emissary from Earth.

So the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic views starting with images gathered by the high resolution mast mounted Mastcam right color camera, or M-100, on Sept, 8, 2016, or Sol 1454 of the robots operations on Mars.

Dramatic closeup mosaic view of hilly outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic closeup mosaic view of Martian butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The mosaics give context and show us exactly what the incredible alien surroundings look like where the six wheeled rover is exploring today.

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides  and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding. The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

But there is no time to rest as she was commanded to head further south to the last of these Murray Buttes. And right now the team is implementing a plan for Curiosity to drill a new hole in Mars today – at a target named “Quela” at the base of the last of the buttes. The rover approached the butte from the south side a few days ago to get in place and plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

“It’s always an exciting day on Mars when you prepare to drill another sample – an engineering feat that we’ve become so accustomed to that I sometimes forget how impressive this really is!” wrote Lauren Edgar, in a mission update today. Edgar is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Curiosity will then continue further south to begin exploring higher and higher sedimentary layers up Mount Sharp. The “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Dramatic closeup view of hillside outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic closeup view of hillside outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Meanwhile Curiosity is still conducting science observations of the last drill sample gathered from the “Marimba” target in August focusing on MAHLI and APXS examination of the dump pile leftovers from the sieved sample. She just completed chemical analysis of the sieved sample using the miniaturized SAM and CheMin internal chemistry laboratories.

It’s interesting to note that although the buttes are striking, their height also presents communications issues by blocking radio signals with NASA’s orbiting relay satellites. NASA’s Opportunity rover faced the same issues earlier this year while exploring inside the high walled Marathon Valley along Ecdeavour Crater.

“While the buttes are beautiful, they pose a challenge to communications, because they are partially occluding communications between the rover and the satellites we use to relay data (MRO and ODY), so sometimes the data volume that we can relay is pretty low” wrote Edgar.

“But it’s a small price to pay for the great stratigraphic exposures and gorgeous view!”

Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1461, September 15, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 353,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This scene shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo.  Featured on APOD - Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo. Featured on APOD – Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

As part of the investigation, Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana, her 3rd of the mission.

Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs.  The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs. The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

How much manganese oxide was detected and what is the meaning?

“The Curiosity rover observed high-Mn abundances (>25 wt% MnO) in fracture-filling materials that crosscut sandstones in the Kimberley region of Gale crater, Mars,” according to the AGU paper.

“On Earth, environments that concentrate Mn and deposit Mn minerals require water and highly oxidizing conditions, hence these findings suggest that similar processes occurred on Mars.”

“Based on the strong association between Mn-oxide deposition and evolving atmospheric dioxygen levels on Earth, the presence of these Mn-phases on Mars suggests that there was more abundant molecular oxygen within the atmosphere and some groundwaters of ancient Mars than in the present day.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley and overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Spotting dust devils has been relatively rare for Opportunity since landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004.

“There are 7 candidates, 6 of which are likely or certain,” Mark Lemmon, rover science team member from Texas A & M University, told Universe Today. “Most were seen in, on the rim of, or adjacent to Endeavour.”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite (phyllosilicate) clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites,” Arvidson explained.

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is especially exciting to researchers because the phyllosilicate clay mineral rocks formed under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms – billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and wetter.

“We have been in the smectite [phyllosilicate clay mineral] zone for months, ever since we entered Marathon Valley.”

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

“Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen. Looks like a mining zone!”

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

So they backed Opportunity downhill about 27 feet (8.2 meters), then drove about 200 feet (about 60 meters) generally southwestward and uphill, toward the next target area.

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 209,200 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA's Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle's rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle’s rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo